English has many words with more than one meaning – for example: ‘can’ – to be able to; tin receptacle. Many foreign language words also have multiple definitions. How can you ensure that you choose the correct one? Mistakes can be embarrassing!
Instead of searching for a single word, prepare a list of synonyms (words that mean close to the same thing).
========== The Word ‘Can’ ==========
If you want to find the word that means ‘can’ as in ‘to be able to’, your list might be something like this:
Now, if you search for ‘can’ in foreign language dictionaries, you might discover the following in the English-[Foreign Language] section:
- German *
Büchse, Dose, Kanister, können, dürfen
You know that German capitalizes all nouns, so you eliminate the first three words. The main definition for ‘können’ is ‘to be able to’, and the main definition for ‘dürfen’ is ‘to be allowed to’. Therefore, the correct word in this case is likely ‘können’.
- French *
poubelle, arrosoir, pouvoir
‘Poubelle’ means ‘garbage can’; ‘arrosoir’ means ‘watering-can’; and ‘pouvoir’ means ‘to be able to’. The correct word in French is probably ‘pouvoir’.
- Portuguese *
lata, ferro-velho, poder
‘Lata’ means ‘can, tin, tin can’; ‘ferro-velho’ means ‘garbage can’; and ‘poder’ means ‘to be able to’. The correct word in Portuguese would most likely be ‘poder’.
========== The Word ‘Check’ ==========
‘Check’ can mean ‘check mark’; ‘bill at a restaurant’; ‘part of a pattern of squares’; ‘to ensure or confirm’. If we are looking for the definition that means ‘to ensure or confirm’ we might make the following list:
Now let’s see what we find when we investigate the word ‘check’:
- German *
Rechnung, Beschränkung, überprüfen, kontrollieren, Kontrolle, nachprüfen
First we remove the capitalized words (nouns). This leaves three words to research: ‘überprüfen’ (to examine, check); ‘kontrollieren’ (to control, supervise, to check); ‘nachprüfen’ (to check, verify); therefore, ‘nachprüfen’ appears to be most similar to our desired definition.
- Italian *
A search in an Italian dictionary gives us the following partial list:
controllare, verificare, assegno, assegno bancario
‘Controllare’ (to audit, check, check up on, supervise, verify); ‘verificare’ (to audit, check, check up on, supervise, verify); ‘assegno’ (check, cheque); and ‘assegno bancario’ (check, cheque).
It would appear that either ‘controllare’ or ‘verificare’ would suffice.
- Swedish *
The list of results:
besiktiga, kontrollera, check
Reverse-lookup gives us these definitions: ‘besiktiga’ (inspect, audit, check, check up on, supervise, verify); ‘kontrollera’ (audit, check, check up on, supervise, verify); and ‘check’ (check, cheque).
It seems that we could use either ‘besiktiga’ or ‘kontrollera’.
========== Resources ==========
Use your common sense, books, people, and the resources on your computer.
Whenever possible, try to find a dictionary that includes example sentences. Seeing a word used in context is the best way to zero in on its exact meaning.
Word processor thesauri and grammar functions will be valuable assets. Online dictionaries are plentiful – use them whenever you can. Make sure that you have at least one recently published printed dictionary and/or thesaurus nearby. When in doubt, try to get advice from a teacher, a friend who speaks the language, or an online forum.
Now, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. That’s the way we learn. Whenever possible try to use words in everyday speech. Remember: your language learning will progress more quickly if you don’t obsess over errors.